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You recently got that treasured positive pregnancy test, and there are hundreds of questions whirling through your head: What will the baby be named? What kind of birth will you have? And importantly: What will your parenting style be?
Your mom and dad probably never gave much thought to their parenting style other than “Keep the kids alive” or “Raise good humans.” However, in recent years it’s become easier than ever to find like-minded people online, and the idea of parenting styles has taken off. Terms like “helicopter parent,” “free-range mom” and “attachment parenting” have become mainstream, and new parents often feel like they need to investigate each parenting style and ascribe to one before their child is even born.
Some parents begin picking a parenting style just as early as they pick a nursery theme or a hospital to deliver at. There are many books and expert opinions on different parenting styles available, and lots of parents begin researching months before their child is born—or even before they conceive! It’s not all that surprising, though. After all, this is an important decision since your parenting style can have lifelong effects on both you and your children.
Here’s everything you need to know about parenting styles, from the consequences, behaviors, and everyday parenting choices associated with the most common styles to the drawbacks of having a rigid parenting style picked out.
Where did the idea of parenting styles come from?
When you were growing up, you probably never heard much about parenting styles, and you might be wondering what all the fuss is about. That’s because the idea of defined parenting styles is relatively new.
“Our studies of parenting models or styles are not that old,” says John Mayer, PhD, a practicing clinical psychologist licensed in six states who specializes in working with children, teens, and their families.
Mayer says that in the past children were effectively considered small adults and were expected to behave as such, so no defined parenting styles were needed. That changed a bit in the 1930s when psychologists began studying child development and realized that how kids are parented could affect their personalities as they grew.
Still, throughout most of the 20th century child rearing was kept fairly simple. Most children were expected to be obedient and respectful, and parents assumed a relatively strict role.
The more modern idea of parenting styles that tap into different social and emotional belief systems is very recent, says Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio, LCSW, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of Simple Habits of Exceptional (But Not Perfect) Parents.
“It’s all about marketing,” he says. “Some parenting theorists package their recommendations into neat, catchy titles for marketing purposes the same way that dieting experts do. The mainstream media needs fresh content, so these new approaches gain visibility and, hence, adherents.”
Today, talking about parenting styles has become mainstream. But it turns out that there is quite a bit of research backing up the belief in the importance of distinct parenting styles.
The Scientifically-Described Parenting Styles
Many parenting styles are indeed new, and almost branded to the specific person who brought them to fruition. However, on a broader level, there is scientific merit to the idea that how children are parented affects the people they grow up to be.
When researchers look at parenting styles, they’re often talking about different things than most parents are considering when we talk casually about parenting styles. While pop-culture styles like free-range or attachment parenting focus on how parents behave, scientific research tends to focus on four types of parenting styles that are driven by what parents believe. These scientifically recognized styles were first identified by Diana Baumrind, a clinical and developmental psychologist.
In 1966, Baumrind published a scientific paper that defined three distinct types of parenting styles (later scientists would add a fourth: more on that in a minute!). They were:
The Authoritarian Parenting Style
Parents who have an authoritarian parenting style believe that children should not question them. They emphasize the need for obedience and opt for strict punishment if rules are broken. Authoritarian parents would have no problem using the phrase “Because I said so” to justify their actions since they believe a parent has ultimate power to give commands to their kids.
The Authoritative Parenting Style
Authoritative parents have strict expectations of their kids, but will explain why, rather than just expecting the child to obey them because they said so, Baumrind wrote. People who ascribe to this parenting style are willing to explain their decisions using logic and reason, but these parents aren’t interested in their children’s desires or opinions when it comes to making parental decisions.
For example, an authoritative parent might explain to a preschooler that she needs to wear a matching, coordinated outfit to a family event because dressing nicely is a sign of respect. If the child still didn’t want to dress how the parent wants her to, an authoritarian parent would enforce their expectation and make the child change into an appropriate outfit.
The Permissive Parenting Style
Permissive parents give a lot of weight to their children’s thoughts and opinions when making parenting decisions. People who chose this parenting style are likely to affirm their kids’ feelings and less likely to dole out punishments or have strict expectations. In the example above, a permissive parent would most likely let the child chose his or her own outfit to wear to the event, even if it was not what the parent would ideally like.
The Fourth Parenting Style
In 1983 researchers added a fourth category: the uninvolved parenting style. These parents don’t enforce strict standards, and they are not nurturing or warm toward their children.
These styles are still considered relevant by psychologists today. Gail Gross, PhD, EdD, writes that each is associated with distinct effects. Children of authoritarian parents often seek approval and associated approval with love, she says, while children with permissive parents might be unorganized, lack boundaries, or not have much self-control. Children of uninvolved parents often lose their ability to trust, which can affect their relationships later in life.
Gross writes that the authoritative parenting style is best for most kids.
“Authoritative parents regularly communicate expectations and potential consequences, thereby raising a child in an environment that provides both security and confidence, which helps build his self-esteem,” she writes.
The Pop-Culture Parenting Styles
While researchers have defined the parenting styles above and studied how they influence development, modern parenting experts have articulated additional parenting styles that have become more well-known in modern pop culture. You’re probably not sitting around with your friends debating the merits of being an authoritative versus a permissive parent, but you’ve probably thrown “helicopter parent” around a time or two.
Although modern parenting styles can be related to the scientific parenting styles outlined above, pop-culture parenting styles all have their own tenants and focuses. While the scientifically recognized parenting styles were defined through observation, modern parenting styles have been heavily influenced by our cultural moments and collective values and desires.
Here are three pop-culture parenting styles that you’ve probably heard of:
The Attachment Parenting Style
Attachment parenting is a phrase coined by William Sears, a pediatrician. The attachment parenting style focuses on the bond between mom and baby, with particular attention given to meeting a child’s physical needs as a newborn, says Sheryl Ziegler, PhD, a psychologist and author of Mommy Burnout. Attachment parents often emphasize breastfeeding, babywearing, and responding to baby’s every cry.
Advocates of the attachment parenting style claim that it builds a secure bond between parent and child that will set the child up for healthy relationships throughout their lives.
Skeptics, however say that it can have drawbacks as well. “In this parenting style [the maternal–child bond] is often over exaggerated and leads to poor parenting habits such as breastfeeding too long, sleeping with the baby, again, too long, and exclusion of co-parent and other significant others,” says Mayer.
The Free-Range Parenting Style
When journalist Lenore Skenazy wrote about letting her 9-year-old son ride the subway on his own, she sparked a firestorm that led to the creation of the free-range parenting movement. Free-range parenting isn’t based on a medical or scientific belief, but rather the idea that parents need to give their kids a bit of freedom and space, with the general assumption that kids will be safe.
“The mantra would be something like ‘Kids are not in constant danger…so stop parenting them that way,’” Ziegler tells HealthyWay.
Advocates say that this is the approach that was common throughout most of the 20th century, when kids were sent outside to play unsupervised, or to run to the store for their parents. Advocates also emphasize that the world remains relatively safe for kids and that giving them space encourages independence and self-reliability.
However, detractors says that this approach can put kids in danger. “There is a misnomer that free-range parents are too carefree, don’t care about rules and discipline, and that kids run wild,” Ziegler explains. “However, that is not really the case. Free-range parents do believe in safety but they have more of a fundamental trust in kids and community to take care of itself.”
The Helicopter Parenting Style
Unlike the first two parenting styles, helicopter parenting has a decidedly negative connotation. This parenting style describes parents who are always around and regularly do things for their children that the children could easily do themselves. For toddlers, that might mean keeping hands on them on the playground, whereas older kids with helicopter parents might have their laundry and college applications done for them.
Parents sometimes find themselves hovering too close to their child—like a helicopter—because of their own anxieties. However, detractors say that this can cause anxiety in kids and can diminish or stunt their belief in themselves.
“This leads to deficits in individual responsibility, maturity, accountability, and personal relationship formation,” Mayer says.
What To Do If Your Parenting Style Isn’t Working
Trying to follow one of these particular parenting styles can be useful for figuring out how you (and your partner, if you have one) will confront the challenges that kids bring. However, having a rigid parenting style can also be a cause of stress. If you find yourself worrying about not doing things the “right” way or making certain decisions just because they’re in line with your chosen style rather than because you genuinely believe those decisions are best for your child, it may indicate that your chosen parenting style isn’t working for you according to Dolan-Del Vecchio.
“Our interactions with our children cannot be fit into neat categories,” he says.
Ziegler says that it’s important to keep some flexibility no matter what approach you think will be best for you and your child. For example, an attachment parent may plan to babywear frequently, but have a child who prefers to be able to move independently. In cases like that, it’s perfectly fine to adjust the tenets of your chosen parenting style to fit your family’s needs.
“Instead of abandoning the style all together, I encourage new parents to take the style—as with many things in life—in moderation,” Ziegler says.
Creating Your Own Parenting Style
Ultimately, experimenting with different parenting styles can help you find the method that is the best fit for your family.
“I would remind parents that popular parenting styles come and go,” Ziegler says. “If they want to make a change they can do so in certain areas, but can maintain that style at other times. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.”
Dolan-Del Vecchio recommends parents take lessons from each parenting style and meld them together to create an approach that works the best for their family members’ specific circumstances and personalities.
“The core messages within each of these styles apply well to the particulars of certain situations and not well to others,” he explains. “For example, it is healthy for parents to helicopter when teaching their young child to swim, ride a bike, and use the internet, but unhealthy when their child does his or her homework. It is healthy for a parent to apply strict rules about curfew and time limits on use of technology during their child’s early stages of development but this will hopefully change as their child moves toward adulthood.”
Letting go of the need to adhere to a specific parenting style can allow parents the freedom to make the decisions that they are most comfortable with, Dolan-Del Vecchio says. He goes on to say it’s important that kids know what to expect from their parents, but it is not important that adults be able to label their particular brand of parenting.
“I think having a defined parenting doctrine is wrongheaded. Parenting requires us to be observant of ourselves and our child, flexible in our approach to providing loving guidance, and ready to negotiate and compromise with our co-parent if we have one so that we approach our child with consistency.”
Parenting styles can provide great guidance for raising kids and give you a foundation for building your family’s belief system when it comes to matters of discipline and authority. However, if you find that your parenting style is giving you more stress than relief, it’s perfectly okay to adjust your parenting style or decide that you don’t need a defined approach at all.